Caitlin Dwyer| Longreads | May 2021 | 22 minutes (6,168 words)
This story includes audio interludes. Listen to Wafa talk about her life, her relationship, and Yemeni culture through cherished objects.
Read an interview with Caitlin about her reporting and writing process for this story.
She is in a Toyota RAV4, somewhere in the mountains of south-central Yemen. It is hot, desert hot, and the AC doesn’t work. There is no road. The driver maneuvers the car through dry riverbeds, which show the cracks of prior floods.
In the back seat, Wafa Almaktari tries not to throw up. She tries not to think about the men with guns who will stop them, demand money, and search their baggage over 50 times in the next 16 hours. If they don’t like her, or she cannot pay, she may disappear in these hills. She tries not to think about the fact that the driver, hired privately for $300, does not have a map.
How the hell does he know where he is, in the middle of the mountains? she wonders. But the alternative — a bus that blunders at even slower speeds, and attracts even more attention at armed checkpoints — was unthinkable. She has to get through the mountains as quickly as possible, because Moutaz is waiting for her.
It is June 2019. Moutaz Al-Qershi, her fiancé, lives in the northern Yemeni capital city of Sana’a. He was going to meet her when she landed in the port city of Aden. But she knows she can’t trust herself not to fling her arms around him and kiss him. In the U.S., where Wafa has lived for the last four years, public affection is normal for young couples, but in Yemen, unmarried couples can’t publicly embrace. She told him to wait at her family’s home.
Not that Wafa cares about what other people think. She’s waited too long. She has a lady in Sana’a baking her wedding cake (she found her on Facebook). There is a butter shortage, but she’s got connections. She’s even got a female DJ lined up.
“If Moutaz was not in Yemen, I would not go. I would not even visit,” she says. But he is here, and so she has returned — enduring the heat, the nausea, the armed checkpoints — to a country in the midst of violent civil war. She does not know if she will be allowed to return to the U.S. after her wedding.
“Home is where Moutaz is,” she reminds herself. She twists the ring on her finger. She hopes — no, she knows — coming back was the right choice.
* * *
In 2021, the small Middle Eastern nation of Yemen ranks as the world’s largest humanitarian disaster. Civil strife has mired the country in famine, cholera outbreaks, and violence. Since 2015, a complex set of combatants has battled for control: armed rebels in the north, known as the Houthis, who rule the capital; Saudi Arabian forces, who are determined to stop the Houthis; Al-Qaeda in the Arabic Peninsula, who rose up briefly to fill a power vacuum; and southern separatists in the port city of Aden.
Wafa and Moutaz met before the war. Although a poor country, Yemen had been a democratic one. During the Arab Spring, protesters had demanded reforms, leading to a transitional government. In 2014, the transitional president was struggling to stabilize the country. Soon, international embassies would begin to close, and the militant group Ansar Allah, often referred to as the Houthis, would take the capital. Saudi Arabia would step in to oppose the Houthis, whom they saw as Iranian proxies. By 2015, ports would be blockaded, airports closed, and cities bombed.
But politics mattered very little to two young people who, despite societal restrictions and the potential scandal, were falling in love.
Wafa and Moutaz exemplify the long-haul love story of many immigrants, whose children, parents, and spouses remain on the other side of geopolitical barriers.
At the time, she was in high school and he studied electrical engineering at Sana’a University. Wafa had a huge, trusting smile, expressive eyes, and a laugh that rose up out of her chest. Moutaz was a serious, slender introvert, prone to long conversations on mathematical concepts. He was detail-oriented; she was all big ideas. She recalls how taken aback he was during their first interaction: “All the ideas that I tell him, and my hijab is not very on point. … I don’t have makeup on my face. So he’s like, you’re not normal.”
Despite the differences in their education, Moutaz didn’t intimidate her.
“It was this very weird chemistry that was between us,” she says.
They kept their relationship secret. Young Yemenis couldn’t date without being engaged or married, but the two of them did “all the crazy things in a very conservative society,” Wafa says. On one of their dates, Moutaz thought it would be romantic to ride Arabian stallions. The huge horses terrified Wafa. They were out in a sunlit field, beyond the city limits, far from prying eyes. She remembers watching him feed the animals, showing gentle care. “Although I was scared, around him I was very safe,” she recalls.
At the time, she had been suffering from tonsillitis and had been told not to eat any ice cream to avoid a possible surgery. On the way home, Moutaz stopped for a treat.
“I was like, oh, this is love. You’re giving me ice cream that I’m not supposed to eat, so I know you love me,” Wafa recalls with a smile.
That subtle spirit of rebellion would permeate their relationship for the next seven years. Soon what divided them would not be family objections, but the policies and decisions of world nations: who allied with whom in the war, who offered visas for Yemeni citizens, who blocked the airports. Surrounded by immigration restrictions and bound by national policies they cannot control, Wafa and Moutaz have refused to give up on each other. For them, love has become a kind of defiance of boundaries, borders, and rules. Separated for years, they search for ways back to each other.
* * *
In the movies, love resolves itself quickly: Two chemicals combine, and either reject each other or dissolve into a single solution. It’s more difficult to convey the reality on screen. Love hits, and we wait, watching the colors creep up the pH strip, waiting for the hiss of reaction. Sometimes we know what the result will be, but still must wait for proof.
Most people wouldn’t watch a film of all those empty hours. We like the catharsis, the moment of triumph, the release of tension: a climactic kiss in the rain. But for many people whose loved ones live across borders, separated by visas, wars, or financial circumstances, there is no such easy resolution. Patience becomes the story.
Sometimes — as in Wafa’s case — waiting feels unendurable, and migrants buck against the helpless hours, months, and years. They might act to gain a sense of advocacy or autonomy, but rarely do the massive national circumstances that surround their situation shift.
Wafa and Moutaz exemplify the long-haul love story of many immigrants, whose children, parents, and spouses remain on the other side of geopolitical barriers. They want to be together. They long for the normalcy of family dinners, daily commutes, and coffee dates. And so they wait.
* * *
Wafa arrived in the U.S. in 2015, joining her mother, Susan Kassim, and leaving her secret boyfriend behind. The two had been separated for a year, first by visa processing and then by war.
Kassim hoped her spirited, outgoing daughter would acclimate well. Three weeks after arriving in Oregon, Wafa started college, taking ESOL and math classes at community college. She then transferred to Portland State University to study business.
But Kassim soon noticed that Wafa locked herself in her room for hours a day, talking on the phone to a “friend” back in Yemen. Like many moms of teens, she became suspicious. It wasn’t that a romantic connection back home was bad; in fact, if the phone kept Wafa from staying out late and going on unsupervised dates, Kassim was all for it. But she didn’t want secrets.
So she watched. She saw that Wafa didn’t clean her room or make her face up for video dates. She noticed that they laughed a lot. She liked that Moutaz had a calming influence. Afraid he would get frustrated with Wafa’s sass, Kassim urged her to be more demure.
Wafa didn’t agree: “This is me. If I change then I’m not going to be me. It’s like fooling somebody.”
Satisfied, Kassim gave her blessing — but required that Wafa finish college before any marriage could take place.
So they waited. Donald Trump became president. Anti-immigrant rhetoric in the U.S. rose. And in January 2017, Trump signed Executive Order 13769, which banned U.S. entry for several Muslim-majority countries, including Yemen. Before the ban, the wait time for a family visa to the U.S. could range from months to several years — and Moutaz hadn’t even proposed yet. After the ban, they were faced with an indefinite wait.
Wafa knew she had only one choice: “I’m going to fight.”
Trump’s travel ban worked the way it was intended; it forced immigrants to choose between their families and their visas. It deterred. It broke hearts, if not spirits.
Her defiance shifted to her new country, which seemed to be rejecting her love and her future. She became more outspoken about immigrant rights. At her job, she began questioning a manager about microaggressions. She joined her school’s Muslim Student Association and developed her campus activism, starting her own student coalition in 2017.
A few years before, Saudi Arabia had begun an aerial bombing campaign called Operation Decisive Storm. Originally planned to last only a few weeks and drive the Houthis from the Yemeni capital, it instead became a prolonged aerial bombardment of the city. Sections of old Sana’a, built before the 11th century, were destroyed. Thousands of civilians died in those and subsequent airstrikes. The Houthis remained in control of the city.
Moutaz was working on an MBA when Operation Decisive Storm began. Bombs fell while he commuted to and from classes.
“At first it was intimidating and scary, but with time I got used to it so quick because the airstrikes would last for long hours and would occur daily,” he wrote in a WhatsApp message. “It took me two weeks to get used to the fear, the loud bombing, and accept the reality that I was living in.”
He adopted an attitude many Yemenis would come to embrace: If he was going to die from a bomb, so be it. If it wasn’t a bomb, it would be something else. Life had to go on.
“Although it was hard to be lonely during that time, when Wafaa left the country I felt much better. I worry about her more than myself,” he wrote.
They spoke every day on WhatsApp, sometimes trying seven or eight times before they could get a connection. When she heard about a new bombing, she would often call, panicked, to make sure he was all right. Video dates helped Moutaz get through the stress of school, separation, and airstrikes.
While Wafa grew more outspoken, Moutaz developed a stoic endurance. “I never saw our separation as a goodbye; rather I saw it as ‘see you soon in better circumstances,’” he explained.
In late 2017, Moutaz sent her a ring — ostensibly to ward off interested men from whom Wafa got a lot of attention. But along with the ring came 365 handwritten reasons why he loved her. A proposal came the following year.
“Hell yes, I want to marry you,” Wafa recalls thinking. They both knew what that meant: He was banned from coming to the U.S., so she would go to him, perhaps putting her green card in jeopardy. On the day that she submitted her last final exam to graduate, against the best advice of nearly everyone, she flew back to Yemen.
* * *
Americans often think of immigration policy as a grand national project. Politicians wax hopeful or fearmonger, drawing broad statements about the way we view ourselves as a nation, or the way we think of the Other. Such thematic strokes capture the immensity of the issue, but they fail in the details.
Details like these: One day, Wafa walked into a grocery store in Beaverton, Oregon. There were tulips in pots, cheap sweatpants on racks, and sale bins of candy. Behind the standard smells of rotisserie chicken and plastic was another scent: Moutaz’s cologne. Someone in the store was wearing it. The smell overwhelmed her, and she collapsed on the floor in grief.
Starting in 2017, Donald Trump’s immigration policies explicitly used family separation as a means to discourage migration to the United States. This was a new twist: not just to separate families currently in violation of immigration law, but to use separation as a deterrent against future migration.
Soon what divided them would not be family objections, but the policies and decisions of world nations: who allied with whom in the war, who offered visas for Yemeni citizens, who blocked the airports.
But for many years prior to Trump’s administration, U.S. immigration policies had been de facto separation policies. Undocumented parents could be deported, while their U.S.-born kids remained in the country. The parents often had little legal recourse. Long processing times, high fees, and complicated paperwork have meant that husbands and wives, mothers and daughters, kids and parents, are often separated for months or years while they wait. In Moutaz’s case, and the case of thousands of other applicants sidelined by the travel ban, the separation became indefinite.
“I talk to a lot of people every day [about] how hard it is,” Wafa says. “It’s just emotionally draining. It is expensive, it is risky.”
Wafa has filed an I-130, Petition for Alien Relative, for Moutaz. It costs over $500. Add an international flight: When his case finally comes up for processing, he will need to fly to Malaysia, Algeria, or another transit country; the U.S. embassy in Yemen has been closed since 2015. Add $300 to hire a private driver for the 16-hour trip through mountains to Aden, which has the country’s only functioning airport.
“The Yemenis who have fled the country are very often from the middle and wealthy classes. For the most vulnerable, there are very few opportunities to leave the country,” write Solenn Al Majali via email. Based in Jordan, Al Majali studies Yemeni emigration at Aix-Marseille University and the French Institute of the Near East, and is a non-resident fellow at the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies.
Wafa knows she is lucky. Her dad studied abroad in the 1980s, and her eldest brother was born in the U.S. He was able to sponsor some of his family members and help them escape the worst of the war. As a U.S. permanent resident, she has some leverage.
“If I didn’t have the resources or the money, I would not be able to apply for him. If he didn’t know how to speak English, he’s not going to come. If they see him at the embassy and he is not dressed well or he doesn’t speak well or he doesn’t have a career, you know, anything, they can just reject it,” Wafa says.
Since 1965, the U.S. has been relatively open to family immigration, mostly as a result of the Immigration and Naturalization Act. That legislation got rid of quota systems based on current U.S. census data. It opened the country up to immigrant families from more diverse countries. Thought about generously, the 1965 act was “driven by recognizing that family units are critically important for happiness, well-being, economic prosperity,” says Duncan Lawrence, the executive director of the Immigration Policy Lab at Stanford University. (Full disclosure: Lawrence is a friend of mine.)
Support for families — from permission to find work to early access to ESOL programs — are the backbone of healthy immigration policy, according to Lawrence. But there’s one overwhelming factor in the health and well-being of families: keeping them together.
“If you had this magic wand of tools that you could use to positively impact families, I think that is probably one of the most powerful things you could do,” Lawrence says. Kids are especially vulnerable to separation from their parents, but all families suffer from the threat and reality of being apart.
No matter where we live, we take refuge in those we love.
There is a kind of helplessness to this process that overwhelms Wafa. Despite her defiance of the travel ban, which was lifted by President Biden in January 2021, she remains at the mercy of international law. She cannot speed Moutaz’s visa interview or guarantee that he will not be rejected. Will U.S. Customs and Immigration Services see their relationship as one of convenience? How does she prove that she truly loves this man who she has seen only twice in five years?
There have been times when she felt like giving up and going back to Yemen. At least they could be together. In that sense, Trump’s travel ban worked the way it was intended; it forced immigrants to choose between their families and their visas. It deterred. It broke hearts, if not spirits.
That kind of heartbreak leads a young woman to collapse in a grocery store. It sends her, desperate, back to a war zone.
* * *
Wafa arrived at her family home in Sana’a at night, after a harrowing 16-hour drive through the mountains. She still had the taste of vomit in her mouth. The smell of sweat clung to her. She dropped her bags off inside, briefly greeting her father before running out the back door.
Moutaz was waiting. Completely forgetting where she was, she burst out into the street and hugged and kissed him, not caring they were in public.
“I kept telling him, ‘This is a dream. This is not real,’” she says. “I think that night was the best night of my life.”
Planning a wedding in a war zone posed challenges. In 2019, four years of fighting had cost many Yemenis their businesses. Moutaz told Wafa that Houthis demanded a cut of private sales; the extortion, combined with the high price of goods, forced many people to move their businesses online. A 2015 Saudi-led blockade of the port of Hodeidah, where most Yemeni food had been imported, created massive shortages. Women especially had become Facebook entrepreneurs, making sweets and doing makeup from home.
If he was going to die from a bomb, so be it. If it wasn’t a bomb, it would be something else. Life had to go on.
Wafa recalls the mixed emotions of that moment: “You feel guilty because you’re celebrating and you’re doing all these plans, and people are dying. People are dying out of hunger. People are dying in the airstrikes. Even the availability of things like who’s going to do the wedding cake. … I was telling him, should we downsize it? And he was like, ‘I loved you for five years. I’m not going to downsize my wedding and the celebration of love that we have.’”
Wafa also struggled to adjust to her Yemeni relatives. Her naturally ebullient personality, combined with years of living in American society, made her relatively intolerant of strict traditions. She invited Moutaz to tea at their family home, only to have her father kick him out. When an aunt complained that Wafa shouldn’t see her fiancé before the wedding, Wafa bristled: “I don’t really care what you think.”
Despite the tensions, a week later an imam proclaimed them married.
After the religious ceremony, she hugged Moutaz freely in front of others for the first time. It no longer felt wrong. “It just felt like, here we are. We worked hard. We waited. It was beautiful. And then we just danced the night out.”
More celebrations followed: a spa day for the women, donations of food to the poor. Wafa and Moutaz were still required to keep their distance from each other, a tradition they mostly ignored. They weren’t trying to anger their relatives; this formal celebration period just felt like another barrier to being together.
Finally, they had a party with hundreds of guests. Wafa wore a white, sparkling off-shoulder dress with a sheer cape. Moutaz wore a black tuxedo, his beard shaved close, and a dapper chain clipped to the vest. Their initials hung on the wall in huge gold letters, the W and M intertwined. They went back to a hotel afterward, without secrecy or shame.
They had agreed to write their own vows, but to read them privately. In the hotel, Moutaz pulled out a sheet of paper. To her horror, Wafa realized she had forgotten to write hers.
“He was like, ‘babe, you crossed the ocean for me,’” she recalls, smiling. “‘That’s your vow.”’
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* * *
As Solenn Al Majali points out, Wafa and those like her, whose families have emigrated to escape violence, make up a small and privileged minority of Yemeni citizens. Most remain stuck in Yemen.
Bordered by only two countries, neither of which is accepting refugees, Yemen remains geographically isolated. Saudi Arabia, Yemen’s neighbor, has been a main player in the conflict. The United States and other Western countries have supplied Saudi Arabia with weapons, tactical assistance, and training. The bombs that fall on Yemen are American-made. In turn, Iran has given some tactical and financial support to the Houthi rebels.
For those who remain, safety has shattered. The United Nations has found that all parties in Yemen share responsibility for war crimes, including “arbitrary deprivation of life, enforced disappearances, arbitrary detention, gender-based violence, including sexual violence, torture,” and more. Children are greatly at risk for death in airstrikes, but also from common childhood diseases and hunger, for which there is limited medical assistance. Saudi and United Arab Emirates blockades of the ports where Yemenis import food have created famine conditions. According to UN Secretary-General António Guterres, “More than 16 million people are expected to go hungry [in 2021]. Nearly 50,000 Yemenis are already starving to death in famine-like conditions.”
Back in Yemen, she faced physical risks unimaginable in Oregon — but she also had a sense of worth and belonging. She wondered if the two of them could make a life in Sana’a. Could survive, with just each other.
Before leaving office, the Trump administration designated the Houthis as terrorists, making international aid delivery trickier. While the Biden administration has reversed this decision and pledged to end support for the conflict, it remains to be seen how much they can disentangle themselves from Saudi allies.
For many Yemenis, the conflict no longer seems to have a foreseeable end. The civil society they knew is gone. There is only endurance and the slender hope of escape. For Moutaz, that hope is Wafa: “She always find[s] a way out,” he told me.
* * *
In the past, Yemen had coffee shops where people could gather and chat. There were seaside towns with beaches along the Indian Ocean. Men chewed qat at house parties, sharing the news. Ancient rammed-earth buildings were beautifully inlaid; brick minarets and winding stone streets were part of a long, proud history of Arab culture, from the Queen of Sheba to rare Islamic manuscripts.
“I keep that beautiful image for my country inside me,” Susan Kassim says.
When she flew back for her daughter’s wedding, the first time she’d been home in five years, her beloved Yemen had been transformed by war. The seaside towns where she had vacationed were destroyed. Community institutions struggled to operate. Buildings had been destroyed in aerial bombing campaigns, leaving swaths of ancient cities in ruins. The highway between Sana’a and Aden, formerly a brisk six-hour drive, was blockaded, forcing her to endure the same harrowing mountain journey her daughter had taken. More than anything, the guns scared her. Armed men patrolled the streets and stopped cars. There was no government, only martial law.
“But people there, they accept the reality. They are not afraid,” says Kassim. Her local relatives teased her that living in the U.S. had made her soft. “And I say no, it’s normal to be afraid. This is horrible.”
To her newlywed daughter and son-in-law, however, the summer of 2019 was bliss. They seemed so elated, Susan asked if they had been taking drugs.
“I’m like, ‘everything is perfect,’” Wafa says. Airstrikes hit a building nearby, and the couple slept through it.
Being together had made them immune to fear — or perhaps it was a deliberate blindness. If they paid attention to the reality of their situation, they could see the precarity of it all. Wafa only had six months of travel allowance before she had to go back to the U.S. Despite court battles, Trump’s travel ban still stood in modified form, and visa processing for Yemeni citizens had ground to a near-halt.
For many Yemenis, the conflict no longer seems to have a foreseeable end. The civil society they knew is gone. There is only endurance and the slender hope of escape.
Ten days after the wedding, Moutaz got called back to work. Every six months to a year, he was given a new project-based contract by an NGO. He traveled outside the city to small villages, interviewed tribal communities about their needs, and attempted to provide infrastructure: bathrooms, running water, menstruation products, housing. The work fulfilled him, but it was dangerous. Soldiers often stopped his car, demanding to see travel authorization and receive bribes. He would make a few phone calls, and he could keep driving. But Wafa worried about a time when his answers didn’t satisfy them, when his bribe was insufficient, when he didn’t come home.
“It’s living without a government. It’s crazy I would say, because nobody is held accountable at all,” she says.
Moutaz didn’t have much choice. Humanitarian work, paid for by foreign NGOs, was basically the only viable income in Yemen in 2019. Government officials were paid sporadically; teachers had worked for years without pay; private businesses had suffered from ongoing power outages, infrastructure damage, and a shrinking economy.
He knew the risks. This is war, he figured; to survive, Yemenis have to support each other. Against those who threatened his safety, he bowed his head, then persisted. Mostly, he refused to be afraid — a form of defiance that Wafa tried to imitate, especially when her mother begged her to return to Oregon.
“It broke my heart to leave her in that situation that I saw with my own eyes,” says Kassim. Other than official wedding events, Kassim had refused to go out of the house for most of her visit, refused to acknowledge the changed city. She flew home, hopeful that she would reunite with Wafa at the end of the allotted six months.
Wafa wasn’t sure. She felt like she was living in an alternate reality: “We don’t have gas. So what? We walk. We don’t have electricity, so what? We have candles.”
As the day of her U.S. flight approached, Moutaz refused to say whether he thought she should go. He wanted the decision to be hers. Once, when she woke in the middle of the night, he was sitting up in bed, tearing up. He would miss her, he said, but he felt relief knowing she would be somewhere safe. “So I’ll just trust you,” he told her.
She considered staying. Like so many emigrants, her heart was torn between her old home and her future in the U.S. In the end, she left Moutaz and was allowed back into the United States.
* * *
Love can blind us to reality, binding us only to our beloved — a person, a nation, a memory. We might refuse to see danger, or turn away from transformation, because to acknowledge the horrors of the world would be to betray a beloved relationship. We want to ignore everything except that sweetness.
No matter where we live, we take refuge in those we love. They shelter us, protect us, comfort us. When those people live far away, the best we can do is pretend. We wrap their late-night texts and dropped phone calls around us like a blanket, and rapt in a combination of memory and expectation, we close our eyes.
But love can also clarify. For many families separated by national borders, there are hopes of happy endings, but no illusions. Brokenheartedness can become a kind of resting state, which isn’t to say it hurts less — simply that it becomes a kind of ever-present harm. And as anyone who has ever hurt before knows, pain wakes us up. It focuses us, fixes us to the present moment. For some, the pain becomes a kind of a beloved, a stand-in for the real thing. For others, like Wafa, it becomes an itch you can’t stop scratching.
* * *
Wafa struggled to readjust to the U.S. A six-month newlywed, she felt more like a widow. Reckless, angry, she started graduate school and also a full-time job. She was trying, she thinks, to numb herself with endless work.
It wasn’t just missing Moutaz. Going home also meant resuming a role as an immigrant, rather than a citizen. It meant accepting a status shift that she hadn’t realized she resented so much.
“Back in my country, I live in a villa. I have a driver. I have people that do shit for me. Yet when we move here, people don’t know that. We start from zero,” she says. “It hurts … I’m this established person back home, yet here I’m irrelevant.”
That pain had started early. During her own emigration process in 2015, she had flown to Algeria for an interview at the U.S. Embassy. As the passengers disembarked, an officer in the airport asked who was a Yemeni citizen. Without further questions, he told them to get back on the plane and fly home.
“Just having the idea that an officer has the power to kind of humiliate me, target me, and say, ‘just go back to your country,’ I can’t go through that again,” she says. “If I ever have a child, I never want them to get the feeling that [they] are nothing.”
Wafa wanted to give Moutaz the safety and freedom of the United States, but she increasingly wondered if the process was worth it. Back in Yemen, she faced physical risks unimaginable in Oregon — but she also had a sense of worth and belonging. She wondered if the two of them could make a life in Sana’a. Could survive, with just each other.
* * *
She had four brand-new iPhones in her bag, including two for the man with the ghost ticket. She dialed him when she landed in Cairo, but he didn’t respond. Airport security took her passport, and she had no ticket forward.
It was July 2020. COVID-19 had transformed the world, including immigration routes. Countries tightened their borders, citing health and safety concerns. One of two routes to Yemen, through Amman, Jordan, closed down. Traveling through Egypt remained the only way back.
Wafa had a ticket to Cairo, and no farther. And now she was stuck in the Cairo airport with no passport.
After eight months of separation, she was trying to get back to Moutaz. She had quit graduate school, thrown herself into work at a bank, and saved her money. She applied for U.S. citizenship. Trump was still president, the travel ban was still in place, COVID had changed the rules, but she had to see her husband again.
If you could die from an airstrike, there was no time for distress about a virus. It raged, invisible, behind the more immediate dangers of war.
Following a nebulous web of diasporic Yemeni connections, she contacted a man named Khalid in Egypt. He strung her along for a week, promising a ticket in exchange for large amounts of money. Reckless and desperate, she agreed: “This is my last paycheck. I’ll just spend it all and go to zero balance.” She sent him $750 to buy her a Cairo-Aden ticket.
The limited flights from Cairo to Aden were coveted by Yemeni migrants living in Egypt. Over 500,000 Yemenis live in Egypt, according to the Yemeni Embassy in Cairo, more than a 700% increase from before the war. They often come to Egypt or Jordan on two-month visas for medical necessity and remain, applying for refugee status. Many see Egypt as a temporary refuge. They are often stranded in legal limbo, hoping for resettlement, but not recognized as refugees by the United Nations for geopolitical reasons, says Solenn Al Majali. As such, they have little access to resources like jobs, schools, or humanitarian assistance.
Wafa’s class and nationality privilege did not endear her to those she contacted: “I am a lady living in the U.S. trying to go to Yemen, when they [Yemeni refugees] are freaked out.” The people she spoke with had more pressing issues than leisure travel. They were worried about paying rent, buying food, and finding employment. Wafa understood their bitterness.
A few days later, Khalid created a ghost ticket: It looked like a real flight but did not guarantee her a seat on the plane. She would have to trust that someone would cancel so she could fly standby. In exchange for the ghost ticket, he asked her to bring two iPhones to his relatives in Sana’a.
If her first time going back to Yemen had been inadvisable, this time was worse. COVID-19 had killed several members of Wafa’s Yemeni family, including three relatives in a month. People had worn masks for perhaps the first month of the pandemic; after that, a mindset of numbness took over. If you could die from an airstrike, there was no time for distress about a virus. It raged, invisible, behind the more immediate dangers of war.
Wafa flew to Cairo in July, having spent the last of her money, clutching the ghost ticket like a talisman. After a few terrifying hours, airport security returned her passport, and Khalid texted her a link — for a real ticket to Aden.
* * *
Wafa had been in Sana’a for four months when it came time for Mawlid, the birthday of the Prophet. A traditional Islamic holiday, the 2020 Mawlid celebrations took a different turn. The city was bright with lights (Where did this money come from? Wafa wondered). The Houthis paraded tanks through the streets, and soldiers stood on every corner.
“I felt like they came out of a grave. They had guns and they had paint of green all over them,” she says. The soldiers frightened Wafa; to her, it wasn’t a celebration, but a show of military force. She was beginning to see how deeply the war had infiltrated everyday Yemeni life. Last summer’s newlywed blinders were finally off.
Airstrikes hit a building nearby, and the couple slept through it.
There were other signs of change, too. In 2019, Moutaz and Wafa had gone out to coffee shops and enjoyed their favorite snacks in the markets. Now, even married women and men could not associate on the street. Nonprofit work had become more difficult, as the Houthis refused NGO authorizations; Moutaz found himself unemployed for long periods. Due to a Saudi embargo, there was no fuel except at exorbitant black market rates, so they couldn’t drive anywhere. They stayed in their apartment and watched TV.
After the wedding, they had considered staying together in Yemen. A year later, that life seemed impossible. Wafa told Moutaz, “I can’t have a family here where education is corrupted. They teach kids what they want them to know, and it’s all about sacrifice, sacrificing themselves, and it’s just toxic. People don’t have dreams.”
Moutaz knew his wife would not survive long in Yemen. She had always been too big, too bold, too unwilling to follow the rules. Even if she ducked political trouble, her spirit would wither from the restrictions on daily life. He saw it happening already, in the shrinking of their ambitions: Find food. Find a good movie to watch, and an internet connection to watch it.
She told him, “I wanted to go into politics. I wanted to go into law school. I had dreams. But I don’t have dreams here because there’s not even space for dreams.”
* * *
As of winter 2021, Wafa is back in Oregon. Rain falls softly and constantly on the pavement outside. Home is no longer where Moutaz is, as she once thought. Home is the state of waiting, of not acting on her worst impulses to scream in frustration and cause a huge fuss and fly back to him.
The easy route would be to give up on the U.S. Move to Egypt together, or Jordan. Make a new life. The harder, lengthier, more painful route is continued separation. Despite her desire to be with Moutaz, she has chosen not to give up, because his future is more important than her own immediate happiness.
“I want him to have an opportunity to get out and see the world, or just have the power to choose,” she says.
She wants to give one thing to him and their future children: a U.S. passport. She never wants them to be humiliated, or trapped, or in danger because of their papers. She wants to give them the space to dream.
For them, love has become a kind of defiance of boundaries, borders, and rules. Separated for years, they search for ways back to each other.
He, too, wants more. He doesn’t want to apply every three months for a new NGO job and then face another bout of unemployment. He doesn’t want to take another application test on his Excel skills, or endure invasive background checks, or bribe armed militants on his way to get villagers clean water. He wants to work in engineering, but more importantly, he wants to be his own boss, set his own hours, have power over his future. He wants to see Wafa smile.
“Your smile is the best thing [to] happen in the universe,” he wrote her in a message.
Does love always resolve? Perhaps a cross-border relationship is less about cathartic reunion than the slow, patient intention to help someone else find joy. Like Wafa, Moutaz says migration is about the fight for his partner’s dreams. National policies may require a shift in how we imagine our futures, but they cannot negate the audacity of wanting a loved one to be safe and happy.
Perhaps love means deferment. Or the refusal to defer. Or the unshakable belief that someday, you’ll walk together to get coffee, as if it were the simplest thing in the world.
* * *
Caitlin Dwyer is a writer from Oregon. Her writing has appeared in Longreads, Narratively, Creative Nonfiction, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Rumpus, Quartz, and Oregon Humanities, among others. She holds an MA in journalism from the University of Hong Kong and an MFA from the Rainier Writing Workshop. She also hosts the podcast Many Roads to Here and teaches at Portland Community College.